‘Child’s Play’ (1988): Need a Christmas gift for the kid? Here’s a fun toy

“Ugly doll.”
“F*ck you!”

I can’t think of a better Christmas to revisit the premiere misadventures of that homicidal little bastard Chucky…than nightmare world Christmas 2020 (you think anyone’s telling Charles Lee Ray he’s allowed to invite over and kill no more than 3 friends this holiday season?).

By Paul Mavis

Smartly executed and quite funny, 1988’s iconic killer doll horror, Child’s Play, directed by Tom Holland, written by Holland, Don Mancini, and John Lafia, and starring Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Alex Vincent, Dinah Manoff, and Brad Dourif (as the voice of Chucky), was a solid theatrical hit for United Artists back in November, 1988. Over the decades, massive video sales were followed by several sequels, endless cable repeats, and even a recent reboot, with no signs of Chucky fading away anytime soon. Seen today, the original Child’s Play plays even better than it did 30+ years ago, with director Holland keeping the mayhem moving at a furious pace, its laughs and chills delivered in equal doses, as bona fide movie star Chucky (Brad Dourif is hilarious) steals every scene he’s in.

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Lonely little Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent), mourning the loss of his father, wants nothing more for his sixth birthday than for his mother Karen (Catherine Hicks) to buy him a large-sized, talking “Good Guy” doll. But widowed working mom Karen didn’t have enough advanced notice of Andy’s birthday wish to save the 100 bucks needed for a new store-bought doll. So, tipped off by her best friend, the wisecracking Maggie (Dinah Manoff), to a bum out behind Karen’s department store who’s selling a used “Good Guy” doll, Karen delivers on Andy’s wish…and sets in motion a firestorm of demonic violence and horror.

That’s because Andy’s little “Chucky” doll isn’t really just a doll: he’s the transferred spirit of serial killer “Lake Shore Strangler,” Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), who, after being mortally wounded by Chicago police Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) in a toy store, utilizes his voodoo training to transfer his soul into the nearest form available: a large “Good Guy” doll. Home with Andy now, Chucky/Charles Lee immediately makes his mark by killing babysitting Maggie (as Andy relates to his horrified mother, Chucky told him afterwards that Maggie, “was a real bitch and got what she deserved.”). The crime scene evidence points to Andy’s involvement in the crime—at least that’s what Detective Norris believes—but it takes another murder (this time, Charles Lee’s former accomplice-in-crime upon whom Charles swore vengeance) before Andy is taken from Karen and locked up for psychiatric evaluation. With Andy out of the way, Chucky is now free to roam about, murdering his foes, until he learns that he needs Andy far more than he originally realized.

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I distinctly remember seeing Child’s Play in the theaters back in 1988…and being somewhat non-plused by it (big mistake: you can’t truly enjoy a horror movie at a deserted 10:45am bargain matinee). I had been a huge fan of director Tom Holland’s previous collaboration with actor Chris Sarandon (the scary, funny vampire classic Fright Night). And while I thought it was technically fine, Child’s Play struck me then as too familiar, too reminiscent of other “killer doll” films (such as Lindsay Shonteff’s excellent Devil Doll, from 1964, or Richard Attenborough’s less-successful Magic, which Child’s Play screenwriter Don Mancini admits was a big influence on this project), with that deja vu feeling intensified by the screenwriters grafting on the then-ubiquitous “supernatural killer/monster who cannot die” trope to its serial killer plot line.

So…I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed re-visiting Child’s Play all these years later. It’s much more nimble than I remembered—as well as being quite funny—and it has a big-budget sheen to it that compares more-than-favorably with most of the slasher flicks that came out during that period. While many of Child’s Play‘s elements are thoroughly familiar (there’s a lot of 1949’s The Window here, while the last segment of director Dan Curtis’ superior little shocker, Trilogy of Terror, is essentially recreated in the third act), the smart, humorous screenplay has a nice undertone of being a very sick joke on the unhealthy omnipresence of toy marketing and tie-ins that continues to this day. With Chucky the doll’s animatronic talking and walking grounded in the rather remarkable (for its time) appearance of such now-primitive “interactive” toys like Teddy Ruxpin back in the mid-80s, it wasn’t difficult to take the next step and extrapolate Chucky’s murderous exploits from the horrendous true-life stories of parents actually rioting trying to purchase 1980s Cabbage Patch Kids dolls.

Having this kind of subtext immediately elevates Child’s Play above many of the slasher movies out at that time (having any kind of subtext in a slasher flick, underpinning the assorted beheadings, disembowelments and disrobings, was never exactly a prerequisite in the genre), while director Tom Holland’s slick, assured direction gives Child’s Play a glossy veneer that’s missing, also, from a lot of ’80s horror outings. Holland is extremely clever in building Child’s Play first as a conventional thriller rooted in solid character motivation, that then moves smoothly into grade-A horror…all while winking at the audience and keeping things remarkably light and funny.

Best of all, Child’s Play moves. Sure, there are lapses in continuity (some choppy editing necessitated, according to several key production people, from post-shoot marketing research and test screenings), but Child’s Play‘s speed is its ace in the hole, with Holland (and editor Edward Warschilka) serving up a series of suspenseful set pieces that deliver the goods. Holland isn’t content with just throwing out “red meat” to genre fans, bludgeoning them with crude gore and shock effects (Child’s Play is surprisingly tame in its on-screen violence); his thrill scenes are always layered and thematically well thought-out. When Andy takes Chucky to the abandoned house, the tension comes as much from our fear for little Andy in that environment, as from Chucky’s next murder. And when Detective Norris is attacked by Chucky in his car—a terrific, technically adept scene—we’re on the edge of our seats not just because Chucky tries to strangle him, but also stab him repeatedly in the back and crotch, while we fear Norris is going to crack up the car.

There are rocky spots in Child’s Play. The entire sequence where Karen tries to find the bum who sold her Chucky is logically suspect, coming off as an awkward transition manufactured to get Norris over to her side. And for some inexplicable reason, there’s no concrete “revelation” scene where Norris up-front admits Karen was right, acknowledging Chucky is alive (and having Karen see and believe that Norris now believes Andy is innocent), the absence of which leaves the final Chucky confrontation less grounded and more arbitrary. Considering how impressive Sarandon was in Holland’s Fright Night, it’s disappointing to see him essentially wasted in an thankless supporting role (frankly…he doesn’t look too thrilled to be here, either, for that matter).

Talented Hicks is visually light and soft and pretty (another slasher movie might have at least acknowledged her sex appeal), and she’s quite good interacting with the charmingly real child actor Alex Vincent—their chemistry together helping quite a bit in getting over the final, frankly ridiculous (but quite hilarious) confrontation with Chucky. Outrageously over-the-top, it’s hard to imagine anyone involved with the production of Child’s Play took this final sequence as anything other than broad parody of the Freddy/Michael/Jason school of slasher flicks. It’s expertly done, with terrific action and framing, and a tightly structured editing scheme, but it’s a goof, through and through…and terribly funny (there’s a commentary track out there where Hicks and her husband, Kevin Yagher—who designed and supervised the remarkable construction and operation of the Chucky doll—are heard cracking up during this finale).

Goof or not, though, you can’t deny that once Chucky “comes alive,” and unleashes a filthy torrent of vulgarities at Karen, his face suddenly transformed into a hideous, grotesque mask, that a new movie star is born. The puppetry work is excellent (is CGI dead yet? Please?), but I can’t imagine Child’s Play working as well as it does without the voice work of Brad Dourif (an inspired post-production choice, when original Chucky voice Jessica Walter’s work didn’t hit with test audiences). Growling in a demonic wail of hatred, Dourif pulls off the neat trick of making Chucky both scary and extremely funny in his line readings (whenever a buddy of mine and I would catch a Chucky sequel, we immediately concluded that Chucky/Dourif once again had delivered the best performance in a movie that year). Dourif gets big laughs with his insults and threats, and single-handedly transforms Chucky and Child’s Play from a well-executed but familiar “killer doll” programmer, to a bona fide horror movie icon, and classic example of the genre.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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